Meet the Filmmakers: Sandy Cioffi—'Sweet Crude'

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the
reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Sandy Cioffi, director/producer/writer of Sweet Crude.

Synopsis: In the summer of 2008, militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) declared an "oil war" in Nigeria. This was one of the biggest spikes yet on a radar screen dotted with conflict and tragedy. Sweet Crude is the story of the Niger Delta; of the villagers of Oporoza, headquarters of the insurgency; and of
members of the armed resistance who, in the three years since the filmmakers met them as college students, became the young men of MEND.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Sandy Cioffi: I actually started shooting Super 8 film on my Dad's home movie camera when I was really young--about 8 or so. I was so crazy about the magic feeling when it came back from the lab and we watched it on a projector. As corny as it sounds, I still get that lift in a theater to see work projected. When I was in college, I got very involved in politics, specifically with Witness for Peace. I saw a video of a woman talking about being tortured in El Salvador. I found it so life-changing and compelling that I thought storytelling was the way to all change. I was an arrogant undergraduate, but I was partially right. I started to slowly merge my love for photography and film and my interests in human rights. Eventually, this led to making documentaries.

IDA: What inspired you to make Sweet Crude?  

SC: I first went to the Niger Delta to film the building of a library in a small village, to be shared between previously warring ethnic groups. By the end of the first hour, I had a more-than-meets-the-eye intuition and it turned out to be true. We had landed in the headquarters of a militancy that was just being born. By the end of the first week, I was completely engaged by the village children and the mothers, who carry enormous burdens trying to survive in a land flattened by oil production. I was afraid for the pending violence and stunned by the complexity of the situation. By the end of that trip, I knew I had to go back. Somehow I was in the right place at the right time.

There was one mother in particular who really had my number when she grabbed my hand and got me to run past an armed oil company security officer with my camera to film a gas flare raging in her village, leaving her children with a one-in-five chance of dying before their 5th birthday. I had interviewed a Chevron executive the week before, who looked me in the eye and said that they do not flare at ground level any longer. Duh, oil companies lie. But there I was, barely able to breathe because the air was thick with toxins and feeling the heat of a flare while seeing the level of guns required to keep doing this. I was sunk. I promised her I would make a movie. Proudly, I have spent the last three and a half years living up to that promise.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

SC: I started out with the usual struggles for funding and time. Then there is the general difficulty of making a film on the equator, with a very overwhelming climate, no running water, no electricity, a lot of danger to navigate and complex relationships to build. By the end of the process, the obstacles had grown to include being detained in military prison for a week, losing $30,000 while detained, having 15 hours of my footage taken by the Nigerian Military, having my apartment robbed (including all my camera gear), having my car smashed in a strange rear-ending, and various other ridiculous occurrences. All of that said, it was always clear that my challenges paled in comparison to the struggle to survive that most of my characters are enduring. So at each step, I was able to press forward with community support and an undeniable need to get it done no
matter what, because I promised that I would get this story out there immediately.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

SC: I began with an idea of comparing the women in the Niger Delta and their non-violent protests against big oil and their own government in contrast to the young men of MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), who had taken up arms against the same big oil and government. I thought that the non-violent/violent choices for resistance would be my story. I was wrong. The women had begun to support the armed movement as well. It was more of a progression from one kind of resistance to another as the voices were unheard and the conditions
worsened. In addition, I was continually set adrift as the situation on the ground was unfolding and characters in the film were involved in internationally significant news.

IDA:    As you've screened Sweet Crude--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

SC: I have been so pleasantly surprised at how universal a tale it is. While I have come to be very moved by the plight and humanity in the Niger Delta, I did not know for certain if it would translate for others. But audiences have voted well for us. I think that the most exciting reaction was in Galway, where a group of people called the Rossport 5 have been fighting Shell Oil for years because if their actions in Western Ireland. When the people from the area saw Sweet Crude, they were struck by the comparison of the Niger Delta and West Ireland.
Their passion about the people in Sweet Crude was stunning.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SC: Barbara Kopple--Harlan County U.S.A.; Barbara Trent--The Panama Deception; Errol Morris-Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, and The Fog of War; Alex Gibney--Taxi to the Dark Side; Joe Berlinger--Paradise Lost.

Also: Streetwise; Spellbound; Baraka; When We Were Kings.

Sweet Crude will be screening
at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

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To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.